Shortly before Christmas I found myself at a rainy market, on a morning of cold showers and a harsh, gusting southerly. I braced myself with a bacon & egg roll and went wandering around. Somewhere there I saw a bunch of garden ornaments for sale: plump Buddhas, Grecian urns, terracotta warriors, fairies, cute forest animals, gargoyles. They were all in a driveway grey concrete, poured by a man who made the moulds in his garage. I was underwhelmed by the dull and dead visage of the objects (though I have a soft spot for terracotta warriors that has got me into trouble in the past).
I passed the stall by and resumed my habitual search for quality second-hand books and coconut ice. Making my way out of the market I again walked past the concrete mould seller and I spied, behind some distressed looking tree ferns (Cunninghamii, I thought, in passing,) a bunch of concrete Moai.
I was immediately taken with the Moai. I wanted one, at least one. Even at the time I thought this was a bit weird as I’ve previously avoided almost all conversations about Easter Island and the statues since those conversations almost always ended up covering some really bonkers territory: the aliens; the Heyerdahl stuff about pre-Inca Mesoamerican trans-oceanic travel; the long ears and short ears war; islanders forgetting how to make canoes. These conversations have a frightening tendency to devolve into conspiracies and then spiral into reading ecological tea leaves. Combined with cold beer on hot afternoons it’s better to shift the conversation onto more stable ground such as customer relationship management at the tax office, Lance Armstrong, or the rise of MOOCs.
The Moai at the market weren’t large, maybe two feet tall (a tad less I think) and somehow the driveway concrete grey was congruent with their heavy-browed disposition. The market Moai were heavy too, about twenty kilograms. I walked around them, squatted down to look at them face to face and picked one up. Casting a glance over my shoulder to be sure one of my tiny bodyguards wasn’t about to say something like “Mum will kill you,” I found the mould seller and handed over my cash. I hefted the statue, collected my bodyguards and went back to the car park to admire my purchase.
The bodyguards were both appalled (what is that? why did you buy it? how much was that Dad?) and smiling at the sheer folly of buying something so useless and unpretty for the garden (aren’t things meant to be alive when they’re in the garden? Aren’t things in the garden meant to be beautiful?). I could see there was nothing much alive or beautiful about my Moai, quite the contrary it was attractive to me because it spoke of something absent, something disregarded, something cast aside, a lack of agency that was, as it was, set in stone.
At the time I was reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse. It was easy enough to connect my doleful concrete moai to the Moai of Easter Island. The story Diamond tells is a very neat narrative: human overconsumption of natural resources and the resulting destruction of the ecosystem to the extent that all the trees were destroyed. This led to soil erosion, crop failures, anthropophagy, social dissolution, internecine warfare, and catastrophic population loss. Ouch, no wonder the Rapa Nui were pissed off. Diamond tells a sorrowing tale of ecological destruction, seamlessly applicable to the environmental and economic concerns we are currently spending a lot of time debating. The decline of Rapa Nui has all the cuddliness of a cautionary microcosm; choose the blue pill and the story ends. The Moai appear as the mournful relics of a civilisation that only took blue pills.
There is more to the story than over consumption though, lots more. For starters there is the infantilising of the Rapa Nui as being so hopeless as to shit where they eat, and being too dim to see the consequences. This is a familiar turn for the Rapa Nui who had to tolerate Heyerdahl and his arguments that the Moai couldn’t have been made by mere Polynesians, they must have been done by pre-Inca Peruvians. Or worse, they must have been done by the same aliens who made the Nazca lines. It’s a transparently racist moment. Even Jared Diamond, who tries hard to acknowledge the Rapa Nui as being agents working with what they had to the fullest extent of their understanding, gets a bit lost in it when he describes the cutting down of the last tree:
“I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”?
There’s something very colonising about this projection; it’s a position pretty much only available to know-it-alls who know better than everyone else, especially better than an islander people living as close to the middle of nowhere as possible. Generally speaking and without any substantive data, Jared Diamond is the world’s current biggest know-it-all and to read Collapse you’d think he has all the facts at his fingertips, and it’s rhetorically enticing. He’d probably convince me to buy a Datsun if he was selling one.
But there’s a dispute, as it turns out, regarding the ecocide as well as a number of other matters involving Rapa Nui and the Moai. Soon after reading Collapse I took myself off to the library and read as much as I could find (including Heyerdahl) about Rapa Nui. There isn’t that much actually, and whatever you find tends to have the fingerprints of either Heyerdahl or Katherine Routledge. Routledge lived on the island 1913 to 1915 and thought a lot about it, collected everything she could. The resulting book is like a series of music videos–I wasn’t sure what I should be paying attention to but there is a lot to choose from. And Heyerdahl, well, the guy had chutzpah.
After Diamond, the counter arguments to the ecocide were most substantially put by archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in their book The Statues that Walked. They argue that there was no ecocide but rather a confluence of circumstances that led to something like doom. Rats, brought by the Polynesian colonists, ate the seeds of the native palms leading to the deforestation–not the Rapa Nui transporting the Moai on rails or sledges. Hunt and Lipo argue that the Moai were moved refrigerator-style, like they walked. Anyone who’s had to move a fridge down the driveway to a removal truck can understand this is a very possible hypothesis. Additionally the poor soil quality was in place before the colonists settled the island and was not a result of deforestation (though they also say it wouldn’t have helped) that if it wasn’t for the islanders’ lithic mulching agriculture would have been little more than a balcony garden: miniature, inadequate, just garnishes. There was no catastrophic loss of soil fertility; it was just ancient volcanic rubble and crap for soil.
The population loss is attributed not to the outcomes of logging and Moai transport but to depredation by slavers, blackbirding for indentured servitude; death from the usual array of diseases from which the Rapa Nui had no immunity; substantial inter-island migration (many left and went to Mangareva and Tahiti); and the stunningly bad set up by which the Rapa Nui were confined to Hanga Roa, like Palestinians behind the wall, while their island was operated as fox-free sheep run by a private company–a considerable disincentive for population growth. Imperialism is always a likely suspect in late nineteenth century murder mysteries: Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.
Diamond has made further counter arguments in response to Hunt and Lipo but I must admit that I found The Statues that Walked convincing, at least as convincing as Collapse, and probably a little more so. Diamond wrote:
The islanders did inadvertently destroy the environmental underpinnings of their society. They did so, not because they were especially evil or deprived of foresight, but because they were ordinary people, living in a fragile environment, and subject to the usual human problems of clashes between group interests, clashes between individual and group interests, selfishness, and limited ability to predict the future. Does that remind you of any problems that we ourselves face today? That’s why we find Easter’s story so gripping, and why it may offer us lessons.
I think the thing that I can’t quite embrace is that “inadvertently.” Looking at the Moai, their sheer size and scale, the wondrousness of them, I can’t believe that this was a group of people who did things inadvertently. Some things were done to them inadvertently, smallpox for instance, but I don’t think they inadvertently cut down the trees, or bred Polynesian rats, or built stone gardens. I think there was a lot of purpose at work: they couldn’t have survived at all without considerable intention.
The crucial openness in both Diamond and Hunt & Lipo’s arguments, and what both arguments share, is the idea of fragility. For Diamond the fragility of the Rapa Nui environment is the crucial factor in the unbalancing of the whole place. For Hunt & Lipo it is the fragility of the Rapa Nui themselves that cannot be seen past. I found myself thinking about Marshall Sahlins and his proposition that the transformation of a culture is its reproduction. In such a fragile position both Rapa Nui and the Rapa Nui were not able to transform, so constrained were the circumstances of their continued existence: too fragile to move, too fragile to change.
In the context of such knife-edge sustainability what did the Moai mean, how did they mean? Unsurprisingly there are many readings and for non-Rapa Nui I expect this is the central function of the Moai: they are instruments, measuring sticks for some aesthetic or theological thing wanting measuring. This purpose probably does not apply to the people who made the Moai. I expect that when people make such an effort as to build enormous stone statues and manually arrange them around the place they know why, and what for. When you work that hard to survive, effort is the key asset, and you don’t waste it.
Most theories focus on the birdman cult and the ongoing participation of blessed ancestors in the cycles of life. The birdman cult is odd, startlingly so, combining the internal logics of float tanks, cliff diving (with sharks), and monasticism. The gist of it seems to be that young men were chosen by older, wiser men to compete to retrieve the first sooty tern egg of the season from offshore islets (actually enormous towers of volcanic rock). The winner was then sacred (tapu) for six months or so and lived in isolation in oval shaped stone houses. That sacredness lived on and in order to make good use of the blessing the Rapa Nui made the Moai to ensure its presence after the sacred one’s death. I’ve read that the cult and the Moai were chronologically exclusive, and I’ve read that they were directly related but when we’re talking about only six or seven hundred years of settlement it is hard to place firm bookends, and I think there was some connective tissue between the birdman cult and the Moai: the Moai were complicated.
The Moai were certainly a long way from one-size-fits-all: some Moai were big, really big, the biggest at 69 feet tall and an estimated mass of 270 tons. More often the Moai were about four metres tall and weighing in at an average twelve and a half tons. There were also little Moai, medium sized Moai, and other odd shaped Moai. There are decorated Moai and plain Moai. There were fat Moai and skinny Moai. There were Moai half buried and Moai flat on their back. It has been said that Moai also have an emotional register: sad Moai, happy Moai, regretful Moai, suspicious Moai, and so on.
But all Moai must have cast a long shadow, with their back to the sea, placed upon large platforms of rock called ahu, they stared out over rocky fields, fields constructed in the Polynesian style as to intercept the movement of water making its subterranean way to the sea. The shadows were enhanced by the Rapa Nui putting a large topknot or top hat, called pukao, on top of a Moai, making them very, very tall. At dusk and dawn their shadows must have been almost across their domains. The topknot was carved from a softer rock than the Moai, red scoria. Before the collapse and the Moai fell they had eyes. Carved corals were placed under a Moai’s brow.
The Moai were watchful, they were guards. Given the precariousness of the island and the people this is entirely fitting. Marginal agriculture needs something to help it operate as a going concern and enormous stone carvings of blessed ancestors are as good as anything else.
The Moai didn’t work to this end. Their watchfulness was a failure. The faith they required for construction, transport, placement and maintenance fell away when there wasn’t enough food to go around. So chances are the Rapa Nui pushed the blessed ancestors over, they weren’t doing their job. When the horror ended there were only 110 Rapa Nui on the island and no Moai stood.
By 1868 the only standing Moai were stolen, the statues were transported to Chile, Britain, the US, Belgium, France and (oddly enough) New Zealand. Sometimes the Moai were too big to move so the heads were cut off. The treasure hunters usually stole the decorated Moai, which were usually made of the more durable basalt rather the pliable volcanic tuff. With durability came weight and also detail, engravings and petroglyphs–value added, better resale value. There’s a well established critique of the ethics of treasure hunting, even when the treasure is a hunk of volcanic rock, and it’s not pretty. Many of the stolen Moai are now in museums and this is again deployed as mitigation of the fact of their theft. In a lovely paper Peter Mason makes the point that since the Moai were toppled no-one knows where they were and so there is no right spot, no pristine oneness with location, for any Moai: we’ve just got to take them where they are.
Interestingly there are also fake Moai, especially in the United States. Copies were sometimes made usually from Chilean Moai on loan (for display and for the promotion of jet fuelling facilities on the island–sad but true) to North American museums. There is even a submerged fake Moai that divers visit off the coast of Rapa Nui. It was produced for the 1994 Kevin Costner produced, Kevin Reynolds directed movie Rapa Nui, and then sunk offshore as a dive reef. I guess they didn’t want to confuse people: real mysteries of Easter Island.
My moai isn’t a fake Moai. It isn’t even close to actually being a copy. Proper Moai have bodies, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, arses: proper Moai sit. It might be said that they recline. My moai is more like something taken from a cartoon of a Moai, a parody of something else refracted through a hazy exotic indigeneity, faux pastiche. A few key stylistic references and that’s about it. I suppose this could be some comfort, I’m hardly stealing anyone’s mana with my concrete cartoon. Nor I am I debasing the beliefs of the Rapa Nui since my moai isn’t something in which anyone could find faith, or lose it. Nevertheless it is connected to Moai, the function of the Moai is surely greater than that of a concrete garden ornament but not dissimilar. Ornaments are also vestments and sacred vessels too.
My moai broods, it is mournful. It references some greater absent other but that other is so distant and past that all we can do is try to draw moralising parallels with the vast uncertainties of our own conduct. As if when we talk about the trees of Rapa Nui we are also talking about fossil fuels, or chlorofluorocarbons, or the Grand Pacific Garbage Patch, or the extinction of the Javan Tiger. I think the thing my moai does, just sitting there in our garden, is remind me that people can only survive with what they’ve got. They can only make lives and make more lives when they believe in doing so, and people make that faith with the resources they have to hand: the people and the place around them. These are the resources for all lives. Recognising those resources and making use of them is how we all survive. And when we do, when we pay attention like the Rapa Nui did, we can have some faith in our lives.
The two photographs of my garden moai were taken by Beargirl, now 12.